BMCR 2022.10.16

Une histoire universelle des ruines: des origines aux Lumières

, Une histoire universelle des ruines: des origines aux Lumières. La Librairie du XXIe siècle. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2020. Pp. 722. ISBN 9782021282504 €49,00.

“Tous les hommes ont un secret attrait pour les ruines,” proclaimed the royalist conservative Chateaubriand in his Génie du Christianisme, a defense of Catholicism. Chateaubriand’s words are an arresting place to begin a work on ruins in the twenty-first century, as Alain Schnapp surely realized when he did just that. Anglophone scholars, who know Schnapp as an archaeologist of ancient Greece, and who have seen the words universal and ruins in the title, may wonder what is going on. Does Schnapp not agree that Ruinenlust and anticomanie are essentially western European phenomena, born in the Renaissance and honed in the Enlightenment?

They need not worry too much. First this is “a” history, rather than “the” history. Second, while Schnapp’s theoretical outlook has been shaped by western European thinkers on ruins, he roams widely: not only to Greece and Rome and their inheritors in Europe, but to the Maghreb, China, and beyond. And third, most importantly, his “ruines” are not primarily stones. For Schnapp, they are indications of the past, understood very widely. If we accept that humans, in general, are interested in the passing of time, not just its material traces, Chateaubriand’s lapidary pronouncement can be rescued. And in practice, we don’t need his “secret”: it is not hard to find the responses that this fascination provokes. Building with an eye to future decay is one example; spoliation, communal rituals, and poetic responses to time’s effects are others. Often, Schnapp argues, historical consciousness emerges through a dialogue between some of these responses, between memory, writing, and what he calls vestiges or traces in the landscape. In practice, he is less interested in objects than in the processes through which societies reflect on their place in history and understand themselves in relation to time. His project is, therefore, enormously ambitious. The result is erudite, fertile, and suggestive—and, with its 650 pages of text in two columns, occasionally overwhelming.

Schnapp organizes his material by societies, rather than by themes: the ancient Near East; the Classical world; China; Medieval Europe; pre-Islamic and Islamic civilizations; and then the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Clearly, there are broad differences that shape these societies’ interest in the past: the fate of Rome that has haunted the western European historical imagination has no parallel in China. Within his individual chapters, Schnapp also draws attention to the difficulty of generalizing about how people demonstrated their awareness of the passage of time. In his survey of the Near East, he shows the Egyptians’ “paysage mémoriel” (75) was made up of monuments designed to communicate to the future. The Mesopotamians, on the other hand, buried inscribed bricks in the walls of their temples, assuming that the buildings would be restored and the bricks be found, and they had an interest in collecting and display that manifested itself, for example, in the series of statues of Akkadian sovereigns kept in the temple of Enlil at Nippur. Ideas about ruins in the Jewish tradition come in texts. Schnapp argues that the tales of destruction in the Hebrew Bible—Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, Jericho—were a collective memento mori for the ancient Israelites, and then, following the destruction of the Second Temple, that the rabbis built a textual monument, the Talmud.

These examples give some idea of the capaciousness of Schnapp’s net, and the difficulty of giving his catch structure. Explicitly and implicitly, he encourages us to see similarities between his chapters. He argues that the Syrian warrior-poet Usāma ibn Munqid introduced his work on tombs and ruined sites in similar ways to the way Alfred the Great justified his translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura pastoralis into English; a few pages later, he compares the work of the twelfth-century poet Nashwān ibn Sa’īd with the Casa dei Crescenzi at Rome. As well as pointing to similarities such as these, Schnapp establishes a framework with which he can interpret thinking about ruins across cultures more generally. “La ruine est par définition instable,” he concludes, “elle oscille entre matérialité et immatérialité, mémoire et oubli, nature et culture. Ce sont ces trois axes qui lui donnent une fonction universelle” (652). In a short but striking essay the German sociologist Georg Simmel developed one of these axes, nature vs culture: stones in buildings had been taken from nature, and would inevitably return to it. But remains in the landscape are only ruins if someone—whether poet, historian, or archaeologist—recognizes them as evidence of human activity, which would otherwise be forgotten. So ruins also emerge from the conflict between memory and oblivion. And Schnapp also sees ruins as a product of a tension between the material (what remains) and the immaterial (what once existed, is now lost, and must be recovered through the imagination). Societies’ awareness of this last tension is best documented not through buildings, but through poems and similar reflections. Horace’s Ode III.30, his “monumentum aere perennius” is a touchstone, for which Schnapp finds a parallel in Egypt. Another key passage is Lucan’s “etiam periere ruinae” (ix.969) recalled by a short poem at the end of the thirteenth-century Japanese epic, The Tale of the Heike. One of the pleasures of this book is Schnapp’s readiness to cite his witnesses at length, which allows his obvious sympathy for the creative responses that ruins provoke to emerge.

Schnapp argues that in the classical worlds the poets were preeminently responsible for preserving the memory of the past. Alongside Horace and Lucan, he writes sensitively about Pindar’s thesauros, Lucretius’ vocabulary of decay and destruction, and the ways in which the fall of Troy loomed over Greek tragedy. The dominant key, he argues, is a melancholy tempered with Stoicism, citing Seneca on the burning of Lyon (Ep. XIV.91.16). The poets and philosophers were not the only guardians of memory. Schnapp also considers antiquaries, historians—Herodotus and Thucydides loom large—and guardians responsible for maintaining sanctuaries. The chronicle from the temple of Athena at Lindos (I. Lindos II.2) is especially useful here, with its reference to men selected to inscribe evidence for the goddess’ appearances. In the Roman world in particular, concerns about the passage of time centered around the fates of cities. Schnapp connects legislation—including the senatus consultum from Herculaneum arguing that rampant speculation by developers produced an appearance incompatible with peace—with other inscriptions and historians’ comments to demonstrate anxiety about signs of decay. Cities needed order, deformitas and vetustas evoked civil war. Even the hut of Romulus on the Palatine required regular repair and maintenance.

What can classicists learn from this extraordinary collection of material? Most of the examples that Schnapp cites in his section on the Greco-Roman world will be familiar, as will the relatively spare references to modern scholars that he includes. Schnapp’s commitment to the longue durée, though, offers a stimulating perspective on the development of ideas about the past, as, for example, when he discusses attitudes in late antiquity. He demonstrates clearly how ruins were a central topos in the efforts of poets and emperors to make sense of a pagan past in a Christianized empire. On the one hand, Christians wanted to repress pagan customs, maybe leaving faint traces to demonstrate their triumphs. On the other, emperors were supposed to be restitutores, like their antecedents, and to maintain the decus of the state. This tension is clear in legislation and in the letters of Cassiodorus, for example, but also in poems of Prudentius, and in the endeavors of the biographer Eunapius of Sardis, who showed how his contemporaries preserved pagan memories in his hometown. And Rutilius Namatianus, Sidonius Apollinaris, and various poets in the Palatine Anthology wrote about the new ruins of empire with a (mostly) stoic melancholy that recalled their predecessors.

Second, for those readers who work through his other examples, Schnapp’s comparative approach has clear benefits. His chapter on China has fascinating comments on the passion for the past and the political imperatives to preserve it. Schnapp juxtaposes the philosopher Mozi, who wrote about what classicists would call the epigraphic habit, with his contemporary Thucydides, and Zhang Chang, who discussed a bronze cauldron that had been found and presented to the Emperor, with his contemporary Varro. Schnapp’s awareness of the likely audience for his work might irk Chinese specialists: he includes many more references to European phenomena in this chapter, than he does Chinese references elsewhere (so, e.g., Ouyang Xiu is variously like Petrarch, Thomas Browne, and Caylus, and the stele of Yu is like the Donation of Constantine). But to those of us unfamiliar with Chinese historical memory, this is very useful.

Third, Schnapp’s chapters on Medieval and Early Modern Europe effectively present a series of case studies in the reception of the Greek and Roman past. The material traces of the Roman empire tended to disquiet medieval viewers. People who recognized them as Roman feared their pagan connections; others more vaguely saw them as evidence of a lost civilization, wondering what had caused its demise. The Old English poem “The Ruin”, dating from the eighth or ninth century, a probable response to the remains of Bath, is a classic example. From the twelfth century, however, Schnapp identifies a series of increasingly curious and unabashed responses to classical objects, which were increasingly identified as “indices de l’histoire” (329). This process of demystification continued in the Renaissance, although not always smoothly. The great antiquaries who were devoted, like Ciriaco d’Ancona, to raising the dead, take their place alongside poets, philosophers, and artists. Schnapp has a sensitive reading of Montaigne, for example, who distinguished the antiquaries’ “abstraite et contemplative” knowledge from what little he could understand when faced with “mambres desvisagés”, which he assumed must have been the least impressive parts of the original city precisely because they survived (cit. 517). Most, though, were confident that they could represent and reconstruct the achievements of antiquity, and as a result, from the seventeenth century on, poets and painters were drawn to the symbolic value of ruins. Schnapp argues that visual renditions of time’s effects—whether surveys of architectural remains, pastoral scenes such as Poussin’s, or catalogues such as Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquéewere a characteristically European response to ruins. He illustrates the different eighteenth-century approaches of Giovanni Paolo Panini, Piranesi, and Hubert Robert, before finally arriving at the philosophes, Diderot foremost among them, and then Chateaubriand once more.

In many ways this is a successor to Schnapp’s wonderful history of archaeology, La conquête du passé (and in fact, readers interested in the discovery of material objects should probably start there).[1] Whereas that work focused on practices, this one has wider anthropological concerns, to try to understand what motivated people to collect, document, and mark time’s passage in a broad sense. It takes its place among a series of recent studies of European ruin-fascination in antiquity and beyond, and which look beyond material remains to the textual responses they evoke.[2] It is mostly clear, avoids the solemnity the topic can often evoke, and is the product of an enormous and humane curiosity; alongside the (almost inevitable) references to Borges, Schnapp invites us to think about the work of Ismail Kadaré and even refers to Dino Buzzati. One central and unexpected influence is the Dadaist poet Benjamin Péret, whose words animate much of the work: “Les ruines sont reniées par ceux dont la vie n’est déjà plus qu’une ruine dont rien ne subsistera si ce n’est le souvenir d’un crachat” (cit. 19).



[1] Paris 1993; Eng. tr. The Discovery of the Past, London 1996.

[2] See, e.g., Andrew Hui, The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature, New York 2016, Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, Chicago 2020, and Martin Devecka, Broken Cities: A Historical Sociology of Ruins, Baltimore 2020 (on the last of these, see the valuable review by William Caraher on this site referring to other contemporary works on ruins).